- Political Life Before Identity
. . .the old word vie perhaps remains the enigma of the political around which we endlessly turn.1
Recent attention to the notion of life itself — formulated in such terms as “bare life,” “mere existence,” or “immanent life” — demonstrates an interest in articulating a form of life before it is politicized, thus providing an implicit critique of this politicization (with its potentially horrific consequences) as well as a rethinking of politics itself. The resistance to such a critique can be fierce, confirmed by several decades of heated debates on the necessity of identity politics for emancipatory discourses. As Hannah Arendt protested in a 1964 interview: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man, or whatever.”2 She is not always this certain, however, about the “whatever,” as we shall see, and it is this ambivalence that I take as my point of departure in this paper.
Giorgio Agamben’s work is increasingly invoked in the task of articulating a politics and ethics of “whatever singularity” or bare life, concepts that have sparked a flurry of attention, especially on the part of those concerned with what these terms imply for political resistance. Drawing out the practical implications of what are often highly abstract formulations is proving to be a challenge.3 I will attempt to meet this challenge by bringing Arendt and Agamben into a discussion concerning race, racism, and victimhood; a particularly salient site for investigating questions of identity and its relation to politics, as well as a timely one, given the new global forms of racism we are currently witnessing.4 It is my contention that the proliferation of violent conflicts around the world, whatever their origins — perpetuated by the fear and hatred of an enemy whose identity is never in question — has rendered even the most strategic of strategic essentialisms problematic. I will argue that a focus on what is variously described by Arendt and Agamben as bare life, the pure fact of being human, biological life, or the human-as-such, holds promise for a political thought and practice attempting to extricate itself from the determinations of politicized identities. This is not the promotion of a universal category or community of the human — not therefore, an abstract universal subject — but an appeal to the significance of the singularity of life; the bare life or “mere existence” that is included in the realm of politics, power, and rights, only by way of its exclusion.
More specifically, I would like to demonstrate that the appeal to naked life could assist us in avoiding the dangers of an identification with victimhood — what Paul Gilroy calls an “exaltation of victimage” — in ways that sabotage political agency in its grasping for a just future, or simply survival. To this end, I will return to the rich, phenomenological descriptions that W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon provide of the condition of victimhood — the double consciousness of the racialized or colonized subject — and of the process of “disalienation” in Fanon that refuses the “amputation” of victimization. I argue that subsequent raciology, occurring in the context of a contemporary focus on difference and on the fundamental significance of identity for political practice, has the tendency to forget this refusal. The critique of “color-blindness” — a perspective that refuses the terms and divisions of race even for emancipatory politics — reflects the tenacious link between identity and politics that many argue will only lead to repeat cycles of grievance at best and violence at worst.
That we need to extricate ourselves not only from the worldview of the perpetrator, but also that of the victim, is the claim I turn to in the remainder of the paper. I will argue, as Mahmood Mamdani does, that once an economy of violence has evolved out of a binary logic of victim and perpetrator, political transformation cannot occur on the basis of identity.5 It is crucial then, that we engage with those thinkers who attempt to refuse the politicization of identities to begin with — who articulate a...